All sorts of people have been raving about this book - Jonathan Franzen wets himself about it in the cover; it has already been a Radio 4 Book of the Week or something like that; the ladies who tweet, such as @samatredmag and @sarahefrankin, have been banging on about it for some time - and they are all right to do so. It is clever, ingenious, entertaining and, importantly, very very funny indeed.
Bee is an extremely bright teenage girl, the daughter of extremely bright parents. Her father, Elgin, is on the verge of cracking thought-controlled technology at Microsoft. Her mother, Bernadette, is an award-winning architect and recipient of a MacArthur genius grant. They are also one of the most colossally dysfunctional families you’ll ever meet in fiction.
Bernadette, following an initially unnamed event which comes to light later on, tries to avoid human contact if at all possible. This extends to paying someone in India 75c an hour to act as a virtual assistant, refusing to get out of the car when dropping her daughter off at school, much to the suspicion and consternation of other parents, and conducting most communication by email.
The novel itself collects these emails, along with letters, faxes and other documents penned by an equally dysfunctional supporting cast, with an interlocking narrative from Bee as she tries to piece together the events leading up to her mother’s disappearance.
The enjoyment of this book is in its extremes. No one is really as bad, as mad, as eccentric as these characters (at least, no one you or I know) but Semple manages to keep the whole thing cracking along at just the right side of believable so that we don’t dismiss the whole thing as too far-fetched. It is silly, yes, but so much fun that you don’t really care. It is Arrested Development in book form.
And if that isn’t a good enough soundbite for you here are some more. At several points while reading this I was put in mind of The Serial by Cyra McFadden, perhaps the funniest satire of 70s West Coast life there is, so it did feel like an updated version of that spliced with Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs and Matt Beaumont’s E - all of which are great books, by the way – without ever coming across as derivative. What I will say is that if you like any of those books then you are primed to love this and even if you haven’t you’ll probably love this anyway.
Where'd You Go, Bernadette (there is no ? in the title so I assume the question is rhetorical) is bound to end up mentioned by loads of female journalists (and some men too, but I bet mainly women) when it comes to the end of year round ups in December. It will deserve its place there but is equally deserving of your attention now. You’ll be hard pressed to have as much fun reading a novel as you will with this one.